On a beautifully sunny, if still cold, Saturday morning, a Cairo resident who is ending a weekend in the heart of Alexandria regrets that the old tea salon of Le Trianon at Ramlah Square is not yet allowing clients to enjoy its pavement tables.
“Shortly, the winter is coming to an end and we will have the tables back in place,” said the waiter before inviting us into the salon of this old tea room.
The concept of café-trottoir is essential to this part of Alexandria. As we took our seats in the warm interior of this tea room both of us used to frequent in our childhood, Laila immediately said with no little dismay, “They are now serving shisha. This is so sad.”
The waiter took us to a table at the remote end of the salon left us with menus, with Laila expressing disappointment over “how Alexandria has changed" since she was last in the city "in the early 1990s.”
We ordered two cappuccinos "to start with” and a club sandwich and Greek salad.
“Of course, it was already different in the 1990s than the late 1960s and early 1970s. But still, the city centre had not been changed that much,” Laila said.
“You would immediately say it was the open door policy of Anwar Sadat that caused this damage. But I think it is more Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies of nationalisation that hurt Alexandria most,” she added.
The waiter brought the cappuccino which was not particularly impressive, but still served as a decent dose of caffeine.
“Had not Nasser made the foreigners want to leave with his nationalisation policies things could have been different,” she argued.
I told Laila it was more, in my opinion, the unplanned and excessive migration from rural to urban areas in the second half of the 1970s and the economic madness that crunched the middle classes.
As the food was put to the table, I asked Laila if she had read the short stories of Ihssan Abdel Qoudous that were recently printed by Al-Dar El-Masriya El-Lebnaniyah.
She shook her head as she went to eat the French fries — real homemade ones, to her liking.
“Three of the six short stories are happening in Alexandria in what must be the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is a confused society of men and women who have either been born to considerable wealth and were trying to adjust their dislike for the norms of socialism, or they have been born with no wealth and were trying to adjust to the new reality of less class segregation that came their way,” I said.
As I ordered a tea to have with my salad, to the shock of the waiter, I told Laila that my favourite of the short stories was the one titled “A swimming suit for the daughter of Usta Mahmoud,” which reflects on the bewilderment of a worker who takes his wife and two daughters for a short summer holiday in Alexandria paid by his factory, and who had to deal with the wish of his daughters to have swimming suits.
“He ultimately gets one for the little girl but not for the teenager, who is so angry about this,” I said.
Laila could not have come all the way to Le Trianon from New York, where she has been living with her husband since the 1990s, without having a cassata and a no sugar Turkish coffee.
As we enjoyed the rich slices of ice cream with dried fruits, I told Laila about the "Women have white teeth" story that captures the expectations of a worker who lost his arm to get a Cuban cigar.
A colleague of his had received a cigar during a visit of some rich charitable women, "with very white teeth," who give away gifts delivered to the charities from foreign diplomatic missions. But to his bad luck the women decided to auction the cigar and buy regular cigarettes instead.
“The smoking of a cigar was at a point in Egypt quite something for those who wanted to indicate social evolution,” Laila said.
As I had a sip of what was a relatively decent coffee, I said that this story was taking place in the late 1950s, the heyday of socialism, but still Abdel-Atty — from the story of AbdelQoudous — wanted a cigar like the one that the chairman of the factory used to smoke.
As we paid our bill that was slightly over EGP 250, and we embarked on a stroll by the sea, Laila argued, “I think our society never really embraced the concept of socialism. This is perhaps why the open door policy of Sadat’s hit society so hard.”
She added, “But I never knew that Ihssan wrote short stories. I must take back a copy of this book.”